The Humane Sensibility

Years ago, I can’t remember exactly where, I read a Norman Mailer argument that cops feel nervous and anxious even at traffic stops not simply because there’s danger, but because at that moment the cop is confronting his fundamental desire to be the criminal. People who go into police work are people who feel the pull of crime especially strongly: people who understand the appeal of disorder go into maintaining order.

It may sound absurd, but consider how often public figures known for homophobia later are arrested or caught in some version of the thing they denounce. It’s tempting to smirk at this, but who would better understand the need to repress something than the person who experiences it? If you believe homosexuality to be wrong, and feel yourself to be gay, banning “gayness” in the public sphere would offer some relief from temptation, possibly, but obviously not lasting relief. Legalizing gay marriage is threatening indeed to someone who marries to avoid the fact that he’s gay.

From Facts for the people of the free states (1847)

In the space of about 20 years, from 1830-1850, abolitionism rose from a fringe political philosophy, advanced by “long haired men and short haired women, to become the core concern of American politics. It’s an amazing change. Historians usually describe it as part of a “humane sensibility,” a new way of thinking about the sufferings of others. The humane sensibility shows up in reform of schools, of insane asylums; in moral reform work generally. It shows up very strongly in abolition, and the process by which slavery, which had been mostly considered unremarkable, came to be considered unacceptable.

from an 1853 anti-slavery tract

Abolitionist literature focused heavily on the sufferings of the slave, and especially on physical punishment. Many historians have noticed this: Karen Halttunen and Elizabeth Clark have both compared it to pornography, a vouyeristic desire to observe physical brutality and submission. It’s notable because for many abolitionists, empathy for the sufferings of the slaves was real: it spurred them to often dangerous action. That sensibility was built on buying and reading commercial copies of the spectacle of punishment

From Richard Hildreth, The White Slave; or, Memoirs of a Fugitive.

As Saidiya Hartmann points out, abolition made a spectacle of the punishment of slaves in the interest of a kind of white supremacy, a process in which white people’s sensibilities were heightened and white people were made to feel and to extend benevolence, while slaves were measured against a norm of independence they could not affect or control. What drew white readers to abolitionist literature, she argues, was the way it generalized white supremacy.

Hartman’s book is excellent and persuasive, and more complicated than I made it sound. But it’s also true that antebellum reformers made a spectacle  of cruelty to animals, to children, to the insane, cruelty to women at the hands of their husbands. All these phenomena were described and deplored through the same kind of tools, a general phenomenon in which the spectacle of suffering, and the feeling it evokes, becomes the central attraction. It became a general phenomenon of the middle classes in the antebellum decades.

Here, for example, is the seal of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to animals, founded in 1866.

And below is an 1865 newspaper image of a horse being beaten. The upraised arm, the cringing victim: the images have a great deal in common with the abolitionist images above. They’re in the style of the humane sensibility.


City Enormities: Every Brute Can Beat His Beast (1874)

Here is an image of “the drunkard’s home from  The National Temperance Offering, 1850).

You might reasonably ask “how else could you move people to end these things, except by dramatizing the suffering?” It certainly seems that way to us, because we are the heirs of “the humane sensibility:” it’s the way we think. But it’s not the way people always thought. There were very few accounts of the sufferings of slaves, or the insane, or animals, in 1800; by 1850 they are everywhere. Something happened to make the spectacle of suffering an appealing commercial product in 1850, in a way that it was not an appealing commercial product in 1800.

When I say “appealing commercial product” I don’t mean people consciously liked it. But people regularly go to movies like the Saw series: it’s probably not fair to say they like to see dismemberment, but the movies were attractive enough to merit sequels. And woodcuts showing slaves being punished were endlessly “sequelized” in the 19th century.

So what was the appeal? In the case of slavery, I think Hartman is right, but there’s more to it. The spectacle of punishment/suffering was “enjoyable” for readers because what was being punished was their own desire for dependence.

It’s a commonplace in American history to argue that between 1800 and 1850, a new kind of individualism emerged: a sense of self based less in social “rank” and class, or in family and kin, and more on individual will. It’s sometimes called “liberal individualism;” the idea that people are rational, that they are capable of being entirely responsible for themselves, and that a good society promotes this individualism. Liberal individuals were motivated by self interest, not familial obligation or class loyalty; they were free of such restraints.

Most Americans today are reflexively “liberal.” We tend to understand liberal individualism not as a set of political ideas, but as human nature itself.  The “tea party” wants liberal individualism, and so does the libertarian party and the Democratic Party and the GOP. They may differ in their interpretation, but for the most part they share the same basic idea. “liberal individualism,” and the idea of a rational, self interested person, arises along with “the human sensibility.” This is why it’s hard to imagine any other way of opposing either slavery or cruelty to animals.

In 1830 liberal individualism was less widespread, less normative. And it was clear then, in ways that aren’t clear now, that it had both advantages and costs. The advantages included economic opportunity, freedom of action, and autonomy, but these same qualities could translate into isolation, loneliness, and vulnerability. It’s not a surprise that in  the antebellum decades, marriage began to change from an institution primarily about property relations between families and the production of heirs and workers, to a sentimentalized relation understood through the lens of romantic love. Marriage as romance posed an alternative to liberal individualism, and extra-rational relationship of mutual dependence. So did family, increasingly re-figured as a realm of sentimental co-dependence. Ben Franklin’s Autobiography famously barely mentioned his mother, or his wife. 100 years later sentimental encomiums to wife and mother were available for sale everywhere.

So there was ambivalence in American popular culture–a desire for independence, but also a yearning for its opposite. For person engaged in making themselves over, in “self-making,” the spectacle of the slave being punished reinforced the idea that dependence was bad; it was attractive to see this, or read about it, because the reader’s own desire for dependence was always present. The spectacle of punishment had the double effect of repressing the viewer’s desire for dependence, their own doubts about individualism.







  • Dina Copelman wrote:

    Thomas Laqueur wrote about this–how “humanitarian” appeals were more successful when they made people identify with an individual rather than a group or idea. Central to this was the image of the image of the suffering body, the body in pain…

  • This is very provocative and thought-provoking. I think you make some good emendations to the existing analysis of the humanitarian sensibility. But I still have a nagging feeling that you avoided a central issue–the issue of pain. Yes, these depictions of enslaved people, brutalized women, etc. as a negative referent, a dependent body. And certainly they are conveying white supremacy. But why such morbid emphasis on SUFFERING, and the fetishizing of pain? It is like pornography in that it titillates. I recently read that people remember advertisements that disgust them more than those that appeal to reason. Something like this is at work in the reformers’ discourse.

  • Rosie, thank you. I’m working on a follow up relating the humanitarian sensibility to machines and machine efficiency, in which pain is subject to economies of efficiency, and too much pain is counter productive. “Economies of pain” are central to most humanitarian enterprises, as in “this shot will hurt but you won’t get measles”–this pain is legit and that pain isn’t. I think the roots of this way of thinking–which isn’t necessarily bad!–lie in machine efficiencies

  • “Economies of pain”: I like that. Very intriguing; links the physical base, and political economy, and intellectual context of the early 19thc. For a good (but fairly conventional) intellectual history dealing with this issue, take a look at Margaret Abruzzo’s recent work, POLEMICAL

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